Art Feelings

by beccaborrelli

Retroactive #1. Robert Rauschenberg. 1964

As we study the work of Barbara Kruger and Robert Rauschenberg- students are required to select photo imagery, collage and combine with words, to send a message.

I held up the first stages of a student’s collage… all photos, no paint yet. The photos were from a D-Day article he found in National Geographic. He selected them because his grandfather earned a Purple Heart in World War II… a medal he’s never told anyone- even his wife- why he received.

As the class shared what type of color this boy might use to convey the mood, I recalled the welcome address Dr. Karl Paulnack gave Boston Conservatory of Music, Freshman in 2004. The speech does an excellent job illustrating how art, specifically music, has power to convey feeling- often beyond understanding. I highly recommend you read the whole speech, but here is the part I told from my memory to Third Grade today:

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier-even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

I paused long enough to make eye contact, and staring back at me were wide watery eyes. Two rubbed their faces- but I wasn’t imagining the many pairs of red eyes staring at me as if I was Zach Efron. I was rattled enough to lose my place in the story. I still don’t know if I made it all up. As soon as they registered my reaction, all faces snapped back and the moment was lost.

Here’s what I’m wondering:

“How does Art do that? How does a generic retelling of Paulnack’s story (not Jonas Brothers here), ignite those feelings in young children?”

Mental note: Bring Copland to play in Art next Thursday.